Rafa Nadal might be struggling on clay but at Roland Garros, Djokovic is still his only threat

Rafael Nadal came into his first French Open in 2005 as the favourite. No, really. Seeded 4th, the then 19-year old had the world at his clay-coated feet, winning both the Madrid and Monte Carlo Masters in the build up to the main event at Roland Garros. It meant that no one batted an eyelid when he became the first player to win the clay court Grand Slam on his first attempt, since Mats Wilander did it way back in 1982.

Fast forward a decade, and Nadal’s peerless domination in Paris is in doubt for the first time. Never before has he been seeded lower, courtesy his five – FIVE – defeats in this year’s clay court season.

Sure, there was his tumultuous run in 2010, which came a year after he lost his his French Open and Wimbledon titles – the latter because of a career-threatening tendinitis injury.

 Rafa Nadal might be struggling on clay but at Roland Garros, Djokovic is still his only threat

File photo of Rafael Nadal. Reuters

Nadal broke down on the dirt that overcast evening after winning at Roland Garros that year. He told the French Open website it was the most difficult season he has had to endure in his career. The adversity he faced in the light of what sport scientists called a “very, very painful injury” that could have kept him from every returning to the tennis court is still, perhaps, unmatched.

Of course, since then, Nadal has only gone on to win eight Grand Slam titles. He hasn’t lost a match at Roland Garros since his fourth round loss in 2009.

This, however, will be his most difficult title defense yet. While he comes in with a win-loss record this season of 25-9, Novak Djokovic is having yet another career year with a stunning 35-2 record. Djokovic is undefeated on clay this year and he is determined to win his first French open title and complete that Career Grand Slam.

But Stade Roland Garros has been the graveyard for many a top-seed’s hopes of winning her over. Since 1992 only three men have won the French Open singles title as the top seed - Nadal (twice, in 2011 and 2014), Gustavo Kuerten (in 2001) and Jim Courier in 1992.

In fact, Nadal’s only loss in Paris came when he entered the tournament as the top-seed for the first time in 2009.

One possible reason for this is how different clay is from the hard courts on which most of professional tennis is played. So those who do well on clay do not do as well elsewhere and vice-versa. Pete Sampras would the perfect example. In Roger Federer’s and Novak Djokovic’s cases, they had the misfortune of having to contend with greastest clay-courter of all time in Nadal.

Given Nadal’s stuttering form, Djokovic is the run-away favourite. And Roger Federer, Andy Murray – who beat Nadal on clay for the first time in Madrid this year - Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori will all be licking their lips at the prospect of the most open French Open draw in years.

But Roland Garros is where Nadal is most comfortable and where he owns everyone else. He will raise his game, without a doubt. He will rip the forehand cross court with just that extra amount of top spin. He will slip and slide on the clay just an extra few inches to make sure he returns the unreturnables. He will do whatever it takes to win.

"It's hard to think that there's anyone who could beat Novak other than (Nadal) in a five set match,” John McEnroe said this week.

I’m willing to go a step further and bet that the potential quarter-final clash between Djokovic and Nadal will decide who wins the title this year.

If there is any chance that Robin Soderling – the sole member of the Club of Rafael Nadal’s victors at Roland Garros – will have company at the end of the next fortnight, it has to be the Djoker triumphing over the Spaniard next week.

Otherwise, Nadal’s record at the French Open will have improved to 73-1 by the first week of June.

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Updated Date: May 26, 2015 08:15:07 IST